The day’s news in Patriotism and rememberance

Glancing at today’s top stories at The Japan Times, I am struck by how thematically linked many of them are. Now, of course it is a slow-news Sunday with few actual current events to report on, which leads the news people to slot the historical stories into the front page, but we can still see an interesting congruence of themes in four of today’s top stories.

The big story is that the New ‘patriotism’ education law takes effect. All readers of this blog already know that this law has been in the news for some time, it has been debated by everyone, protested against by citizens groups, teachers unions, parents and students, and contested by a coalition of the DPJ and other minor opposition political parties, who in the end failed to stop its passage by the eternally ruling LDP. While I haven’t read the actual text of the law [available here] yet (which I really should do soon), we do all know that the controversy stems from one particular section of the comprehensive education law-containing many provisions on reforms generally accepted as necessary-in which it states that “an attitude that respects tradition and culture and loves the nation and homeland that have fostered them” should be promoted by throughout compulsory education, which incidentally I believe has also been extended to include high school for the first time, in one of the less politically charged provisions of the law.

This rather innocuous sounding passage sounds like part of the basic curriculum of lower education in pretty much any country, and one could argue does not even sound any different from what is already taught in classrooms throughout Japan, but many people think of the recent case of teachers being disciplined for not singing the national anthem and feel a worry that the actual implementation of these newly mandatory provisions is another stage in the resuscitation of a particular pre-war style of nationalism. In reality, the debate is not over whether patriotism and shared national values should be taught to children, but what meaning that patriotism has, and what those values are.

The worry among the opposition camp is that the official patriotism will be a doctrine of subservience to the state, which could someday lead to a return to the military days of the past. The fact that the education law was passed in the same parliamentary session as the bill elevating the head of the Self Defense Forces to a cabinet level minister does not appear to them to be a coincidence. But the opposition has their own narrative of patriotism, primarily based on the doctrine of pacifism and anti-militarism that was embraced throughout Japan after the multifaceted disaster of Japanese Imperialism and the Second World War. The relentless defense of these principles, primarily in the guise of Article 9 of the American imposed postwar Constitution-the protection of which seems to be invoked in virtually every campaign poster of a politician campaigning against the LDP-represents a particular vision of Japan, which they are proud of and want to protect. This is an attitude that I think should be considered a form of patriotism.

While statements by the reigning Emperor tend to be somewhat bland and cryptic, this seems to be the attitude expressed by Akihito, the Heisei Emperor, in remarks made on his birthday-which was also a top story today. Although I mentioned above that it was The Japan Times in which these four stories were placed next to each other, I’m going to present the somewhat longer quote from the BBC article (also the front page of that site).

“Now that the number of those who were born after the war increases as years pass by, the practice of mourning the war dead will help them to understand what kind of world and society those in the previous generations lived in,” Emperor Akihito said, in remarks made on Wednesday, but only made public on Saturday.

“I sincerely hope that the facts about the war and the war dead will continue to be correctly conveyed to those of the generations that do not have direct knowledge of the war so the kind of ravage of war that we experienced in the past will never be repeated,” he added.

However, the emperor avoided touching on how people should honour those who died in World War II.

(The original Japanese statements can be found here at the Yomiuri)
Somewhat limp statements like these are a result of how it is generally considered inappropriate for the Emperor to engage in any political activity, or suggest or endorse any particular thing or action, lest it remind us of the bad old days. If you read the entire statement of the”symbol of the State and of the unity of the people,” you can see that he is very careful only to specifically reference the deaths of Japanese soldiers and civilians and the general horror of war, but he also hopes that the “history of both Japan and the world” should be “properly conveyed to the generation of people who have not directly experienced war” so that “the horrors of war like those of the past shall not be repeated.” Right wing supporters of the new education law may argue that children will be upset by learning about evil things done by their own country in the past, but it is difficult to believe that this sort of education encourages the strong anti-war sentiment in present day Japan. Could anyone really say that the Emperor’s desire for the history of war to be taught in such a way that it helps encourage students to be anti-war is unpatriotic?

The concept of “patriotic” education is not inherently nationalistic or jingoistic. I believe that growing up I was taught about American history in a way that was intended to strongly foster patriotism, but not by entirely white-washing the past. Among the things I specifically recall studying in American History class at some point over elementary school, middle school and high school classes are: slavery and segregation (lesson plans inspired in no small part by the fact that the public schools of Montclair, New Jersey were in the twelve years I spent there roughly 50% black/white), smallpox blankets, the Salem Witch Trials, Manifest Destiny, industrial revolution child labor, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, the Wounded Knee Massacre, the Trail of Tears. And this is not even a complete list of the various injustices committed by the United States of America that I was taught about in history class.

A Kobayashi Yoshinori or Shintaro Ishihara might think that I went through a history curriculum written by anti-American rabid communists or something, but as I already said these were actually patriotic lessons. How could that be? Well, slavery had Harriet Tubman and the underground railroad and the abolitionist movement-lessons of heroism and virtue. Segregation brought us Brown Vs. Board of Education-a lesson that our system of law is eventually a system of justice and the civil rights movement, with Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks and other heroes, and of course the eventual end of legalized segregation. The Salem Witch Trials lead to separation of church and state, a fundamental principle of American society. The dark side of the industrial revolution eventually led to the labor movement and various legislation and a significant improvement in worker’s rights. And so on. I do not recall if it was ever spelled out, but in retrospect the basic narrative is clear. Not “America is perfect,” but “America’s founding principles are good, and if we work at it, someday they can be fully realized.” How similar my education was to the national average I have no idea, but I expect that this core narrative is standard. And today’s third article, telling us that President Bush has signed a law providing for the preservation and restoration of all the Japanese internment camps from World War II. “The objective of the law is to help preserve the camps as reminders of how the United States turned on some of its citizens in a time of fear.”

Right wingers in Japan deride the teaching of things such as comfort women, war crimes and colonialism as anti-patriotic, saying that it will make children feel bad about their country. But it is all about the approach. Certainly teaching children about the mistakes and excesses of the colonial decades makes them feel bad about that time, but presented correctly it makes them feel good about living in today’s Japan: a nation which has moved past that stage. Perhaps by being over-reactionary about terms such as “patriotism” and “nationalism,” peace activists, politicians and teachers in favor of actually teaching kids about the past are in fact making a serious strategic error. By saying patriotism=right wing makes it all too easy for the rightists to label them as unpatriotic, when many of them are actually very patriotic.

And now the fourth and final article, Sex slave exhibition exposes darkness in East Timor, which describes the findings of a Truth Commission by the East Timor government on the systematic rape of East Timorese woman by Japanese soldiers in so-called “comfort stations” during Japanese occupation of the then Portuguese colony, as well as the far less organized rape of East Timorese women by Indonesian soldiers during their occupation of the now independent country. While all of this is very interesting, particularly how characteristics of the local society led to different recruiting practices of comfort women from certain other colonies, the following passage is the one relevant to the current essay. [Emphasis added]

Citizen groups concerned about the lack of accountability for the wartime sex-slave atrocities convened a people’s tribunal in Tokyo in 2000 that found the late Emperor Hirohito and high-ranking Japanese military officers guilty of crimes against humanity. The verdict was later censored from an NHK documentary on the trial amid allegations by a major daily newspaper that two heavyweight Liberal Democratic Party politicians — Shoichi Nakagawa and Shinzo Abe — paid a less than comfortable visit to the public broadcaster before it was aired. [Detailed article on this case here at Japan Media Review]

Charges of government censorship of NHK, which seemed sensational and cynical at the time, are now quite believable in the wake of news that now Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has ordered NHK to focus on the North Korean abductee case. Fears that Japan is returning to 1930’s style thought control are both premature and somewhat hysterical, but increasing interference with NHK and education is inarguably more of a step in that direction than away from it. However, while the LDP did manage to pass this bill, opposition to it was fairly strong, and the Abe administration is not looking particularly popular, so it is always possible that we have another amendment of the education law by a future administration to look forward to. Yet, I think the return of education that teaches Japanese kids to take pride in their country is here to stay. The big question is, what will teach them to be proud of? German style guilt based education is entirely off the table, but that does not mean that history class has to be sanitized. There is a big difference between teaching children to be ashamed of the past and teaching them to be proud of having surpassed it.

20 thoughts on “The day’s news in Patriotism and rememberance”

  1. There’s nothing in the education law dictating what kind of history lessons need to be taught, and in fact I think that’s a subject they wanted to avoid. There’s a clause requiring “political education” but I doubt that means “teach about ww2.” Nor are there any specifics on what schools must do to instill “love of the homeland.” The devil will be in the details of how this law is enforced. For all I know, it could stop short at requiring observance of the flag and national anthem.

    As it stands, most schools avoid the touchy areas of Japan’s history, and the average Japanese doesn’t really know much about the war years. And more than that, the history lessons consist mostly of memorization of names of historical figures and famous “incidents” etc. Not much in the way of national narratives, and I wouldn’t expect this law to change that.

  2. The reporting on this law has been, quite frankly, horseshit. I can see why it is a focus of left protest in Japan but as an issue of interest on the international stage, I think that most of the articles that I have seen (AP, Washington Post, etc.) are junk. Apart from the “offending passage” the law also contains these goodies –

  3. The reporting on this law has been, quite frankly, horseshit. I can see why it is a focus of left protest in Japan but as an issue of interest on the international stage, I think that most of the articles that I have seen (AP, Washington Post, etc.) are junk. Apart from the “offending passage” the law also contains these goodies –
    “Contribute to world peace”
    “Respect freedom of speech and academic freedom”
    “Promote equality between the sexes”
    “Respect other countries”
    “Free and equal quality education for all”
    In this context “love the homeland” does not seem like a throwback to fascism, it seems like common sense.

  4. Excellently written and excellently explained.
    Let us not forget, however, that though Fujioka, his lap-dog followers Kobayashi & Ishihara, and their chums in the “Nihon Kaegi” may want to manipulate and twist the perception of history to create a new kind of patriotism, there are other established thinkers such as Ueno and Yoshimi who promote a better informed version.
    Finally it is important to remember that this is not the first time the interpretation of Showa history has been discussed – it is a recurring theme in Japanese academia.
    And there are influential proponents of a more enlightened understanding. For example, in the essay that started the Showa history debate, Mr. Shoichiro Kamei (whom Fujioka says he respects) said something like this; “To encourage ethnic feeling or patriotism during history education is a necessary kind of mannerism. I think ethnic feeling and patriotism are valuable, but they seem emerge naturally as a result of studying history or the classics, and are not something that should come beforehand.” “There will be times when one is inspired with hate for the country to the same degree as one’s love for it. It is alright if the study of history produces people who hate the nation.”

  5. Cynically, one could sit back and relax knowing that patriotism won’t be taught any better than any of the other high-sounding phrases. Although I’m not (yet) that cynical – there does seem to be genuine interest in all the items M-Bone lists, but how well that interest manifests itself in day-to-day life is another question.

    The Law starts off with its preamble thus:
    (We the Japanese people desire to contribute to the further development of our democratic and cultured nation built on unceasing toil, and to improve world peace and human welfare.)
    (We, in order to carry out this ideal, promote an education that places emphasis on individual human dignity, seeks truth and justice, honours public-spiritedness, expects the development of people endowed with rich (as in yutaka) humanity and creativity, continuing tradition, carries on tradition, and aims for the creation of new culture.)

    Not too closely related to the Imperial Rescript on Education, methinks. Not sure about “common sense” (in the sense of none of these high-falutin’ ideals being really common sense in terms of the Three Rs etc: that is, how much ground time will they really get?) but certainly not a throwback to the 1930s.

    Article 2-5 is probably the problematic one.
    (To respect tradition and culture, and together with the love of our country and native land that has been developed through these, to respect other nations, and inculcate an attitude of contributing to the development and peace of world society.)

    Article Four notes that “all citizens” “regardless of race” and other things must be educated equally. Is this an explicit acknowledgement that not all Nihonjin are Asians? Or just feel-good UN-style stuff? I just have problems with the concept of enforcing morals through education: ideally one should come to ones own moral stance through education and learning rather than being taught “be this!” “be that!”.

    One very slight issue is that it only refers to Kokumin: citizens. Non-citizen residents do not appear to be covered. Another possible restriction is that schools are only to be public or those private organisations decreed by law: this could (and I repeat: could – I don’t know the past situation and suspect it’s much the same) be used to rein in Korean schools etc.

    As to the comparison with other nations, I can’t really say, but I do know that most of my primary and secondary school history was concerned with other nations as much as my own. Not that there was such a class as “history” until the low teens: it was mixed in with geography as Social Studies. We did do some on national history, mainly the Victorian era of colonisation, with precious little reference to any previous history, but I distinctly recall that every year we seemed to cover the same stuff: no progress. And there was no mention of anything ‘bad’ or shameful, even allowing that my country never had slavery or witch trials. However I am not sure that a comparison with the US is the best to make: the US seems to be one of the most blatantly ‘patriotic’ of all nations. Flags and Star-Spangled Banners everywhere, bald eagles by the dozen, and that sort of thing. If Japan were to be as patriotic as the US, which certain people in Japan may well wish, then there would be serious opposition from the left and even centre.

  6. This law is mostly political theater. The real fighting happens when they start to work on a new 指導要領 and go through the next few rounds of social studies textbook authorization.

  7. The old statute also only referred to kokumin and I suppose they didn’t want to change the status quo regarding education of non-nationals.

    To its credit, the Nikkei published the full text of the new law in last Monday’s morning edition, and I imagine other newspapers did the same. It was refreshing to have the actual subject matter of the news alongside the commentary.

  8. Jade OC: I’m curious, what is your home country? The US is certainly awash with patriotic symbols, and while it does annoy me at times, at least I appreciate that they can be appropriated by people of various beliefs, and not only the extreme right or left wing like in many countries.

    I do find it somewhat unlikely that the Japanese government would use the new law to reimpose discriminatory practices against the Korean schools that have only ended fairly recently, but stranger things have happened. And Durf is correct.

  9. What discriminatory practices against the Korean schools?
    Korean schools are operated by either the citizen of the ROK or DPRK.There used to be GOJ funded Korean schools right after the war,but Chisensouren kicked all the Japanse teachers and demanded to shut down the schools and cut off the GOJ budget ,hence it is the KOREAN schools and not the JAPANESE schools.They occupied some of the real estate though.ROK schools followed the same pass . Nowadays Chosensouren is claiming (just as they conveniently forgettig what they have been demanding in the past for decades)that GOJ MUST fund them financial support from the monery of Japanese taxpayers with all that discrimination things and activities like bringing the issue to the UN human rights counsils.
    And just what exactly is ‘have only ended fairly recently’ ?GOJ is taking the tougher stace to the North Korean community than ever before now.Although if we were to take the same stance with all the pachinko parlors of this country as ROK did this year,none of that The SEA STORY shit occupying the street would be happening.

  10. I was referring to the former discriminatory practices in college admission for Korean schools, not the funding or operation of the schools. I should have been specific. Isn’t it true that national universities formerly did not recognize the Korean high schools in Japan and made it very difficult for those students to get admission? Still, I think this was a matter of school rules and not actual law.

  11. It was a matter of actual law and not school rules,I thought.and speaking frankly I don’t find this particulary ‘discriminating ‘ for it was national university ,not private university.Now they are pissing with for not being public servants or can’t promote within the system are all ‘discriminating’.There should be a line between Japanese citizenly and korean one when we discuss this topic.

  12. So everyone knows, here is a paragraph from Wikipedia about what I was talking about.

    Another issue is an examination called the High School Equivalency Test, or daiken, which qualifies those who have not graduated from a regular high school to apply for a place in a state university and take an entrance exam. Until recently, only those who have completed compulsory education (i.e. up to junior high school) were entitled to take daiken; this meant pupils of ethnic schools had to do extra courses before being allowed to take the exam. In 1999 the requirement was amended so that anyone over a certain age are qualified. Campaigners were not satisfied because this still meant graduates of non-Japanese high schools had to take daiken. In 2003, the Education Ministry removed the requirement to take the Equivalency Test from graduates of Chinese schools, Mindan-run Korean schools and international schools affiliated with Western nations and accredited by U.S. and British organizations. However this did not apply to graduates of pro-Pyongyang Korean schools, saying it could not approve their curricula. The decision was left up to individual universities, 70% of which allowed Korean school graduates to apply directly.

    I do think that this was unfair, but I don’t really know what to say about the issue of non-citizen public servants. Do other countries have similar citizenship requirements? I don’t think I could call the Japanese policy unfair discrimination if it is the same as international standards, for example.

    It’s really too bad the Japanese and Korean governments won’t work out a system by which the Zainichi population can maintain dual citizenship, but I doubt it would be very realistic for either side to allow it. And of course, even if they worked out a deal with Zainichi ROK citizens, it would never, ever, ever extend to the DPRK.

  13. The deal should only be made after the unification of Koream that I agree.
    But by then we have the Chinese as the biggest minority of the country,and then what? I can predict a huge backllush and who can we count on in the time like that
    to defend the fragile multiculturalism in this country,Arudou Devito?
    I think the country like Japan should stay the course of becoming a multi-ethnic
    nation,not multi-national nation.As a farther of 8 year old Mongolian national,I strongly think so.

  14. Ace: I don’t mean to nitpick, but did you mean that your father had been in Japan for 8 years before your mother gave birth to you?

  15. It was intended to type as father, not farther.(笑)
    I’m a Japanese and my wife is a mongolian and she had a son who is now my son
    through marriage, he is 8 year old.Don’t know what his nationality is going to be in the future.I think I let him choose it when he becomes 18.

    Tell me what do you all think about this Zainichi Korean solution would be,Without this matter solved out I don’t think we can step any forward for any immigration policy.

  16. I was reading some of the previous post and got freightened.
    I am so….’jingoistic’ here!
    I really should stop posting in the middle of the night.

  17. “Right wingers in Japan deride the teaching of things such as comfort women, war crimes and colonialism as anti-patriotic, saying that it will make children feel bad about their country.”


    And I of course (mostly) disagree with them, but your comparason with the recognition of internment camps in the U.S. with war memory in Japan seems to miss the fact that the left in Japan has been quite successful in instituting a sense of national war guilt. The “right wingers” tend to be reactionaries.

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